Fridays in the Field: A Wagner Free Institute of Science Yard Adventure

By Guest Contributor Annie Zhang

Throughout the year, the Wagner Free Institute of Science hosts groups for interactive, science focused field trips. Though the winter chill confines groups to our Victorian-era natural history museum and lecture hall during most of the school year,  summer allows us to expand our teaching landscape to our large and beautiful yard.

Our yard is a grassy, serene, tree-filled oasis that wraps around our building and is a rare sight in our mostly-concrete  North Philadelphia neighborhood. It contains many “living teaching tools.” One is a bee-friendly flower garden that allows children to view our most precious pollinators in action. After several years as partners in the Philadelphia Honey Festival, we are keenly aware of the plight of the bees and are dedicated to passing on an appreciation for bees to the next generation. The whole yard is a playground for insects such as lines of ants, who rapidly crawl all over, bringing loud exclamations of, “I have found all of the ants!” from young visitors.

Recently, we acquired a Malaise trap from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s Entomology Department. This odd-looking contraption aids in sampling and monitoring the insect population in our yard. One of the first reports from the trap showed that a common yard visitor is Amphion floridensis, a large, fast Moth that can hover over flowers. For this reason, people often confuse them for hummingbirds.

The trees in our garden also make a great teaching tool. Site Manager Don Azuma has tagged and labeled them with their scientific and common names. This adds excitement to our Tree ID activity, where children use a dichotomous tree guide to identify our London Plane, Weeping Cherry, and others.

And lastly, but certainly not least, we use objects in our yard for an art activity: specimen cyanotypes. Visitors lay objects on photo paper. When it is exposed to sun, the UV light interacts with the iron content of the pre-treated paper and results in a lovely Prussian blue color outlining the object and a wonderful take-home souvenir.

More about the author and the Wagner Free Institute:
Annie Zhang is the Museum Educator at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, a role that involves learning and regurgitating many a fun science fact to excited younger visitors. A suburban Philadelphia native, she has been back in the city for nearly a year after a few spent on the other side of the state in Pittsburgh.

If you visit: The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Summer groups spend a brief moment in our historic lecture hall with touchable specimens and then move on to a scavenger hunt in our gallery. Finally, we venture out for backyard exploration. Depending on the theme of the day, lessons in the yard focus on searches for mammals, birds, insects, or even fungi. On Friday afternoons, we forego formal lessons for “Fridays in the Field”, open activities in our yard partially funded by Whole Foods Market and the Philadelphia Beekeepers’ Guild.  Group reservations are required for most summer programs, and our busiest months are July and August. Fridays in the Field, however, are open to individual families and smaller groups. Visit for more!